Tuesday, August 31, 2010

BLAT - Iceburg Wedges with Bacon, Tomato, Avocado & Buttermilk Dressing

Maybe it's all the Mad Men I've been watching lately, or maybe it's the fact that since I left the office life, I also left the sandwich shop my co-workers and I all held so dear, and my beloved BLAT sandwich (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato) but for awhile now, I've been craving a hunk of iceberg lettuce dressed up to the nines with all kinds of goodness.

If you're confused about the Mad Men reference, just think 1960's and salad. End result being iceburg with ranch.

Back to that sandwich shop. Our patronage of that place was a full-blown addiction. Since their opening a couple years ago, not a week has gone by that failed to see each one of us at the counter. Quick, cheap and damn good sandwiches. Now that I'm working from home, I thought I'd try to recreate some of the magic of "The Sandwich Zone."

This salad is basically a deconstructed sandwich. The recipe is also another Thomas Keller from the Ad Hoc cookbook, lest you think I alone was crazy for craving a salad of iceburg and other things. Nope. Keller agrees. This salad is magic. It's a meal. In my version, I omitted the croutons and added the avocado, but next time, I'll throw the croutons back in. I highly advise you to do the same.

BLAT Salad - Iceburg Wedges with Bacon, Tomato, Avocado & Buttermilk Dressing
adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hod at Home

1 head of iceburg lettuce, cut into 6 wedges
1 ripe tomato, cut into wedges
4-6 slices cooked, crispy bacon, crumbled
1/2 avocado, cut into slices

For the Buttermilk Dressing:
1 cup greek yogurt
1/4-1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
3/4 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp minced chives
1 tsp minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp minced mint
Kosher salt to taste

Whisk all ingredients together, taste for salt. Dressing can be refrigerated for up to one week.

Place lettuce wedges, tomato, avocado, croutons, and bacon in individual bowls. Dress with the buttermilk dressing, serve with remaining dressing on the side and freshly ground pepper.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When the Tomatoes are Ripe - Tomato Basil Pasta

When August rolls around I only crave tomatoes. It seems they've been later than ever in coming around this year. But they're finally here. And that means one thing: Tomato Basil Pasta. It's my all time favorite. It tastes like summer, and it's about as perfect as a simple dish can get. My friends request it time after time. It's what I always make to impress whomever it is that is I want to impress. And it can only be made in the late summer months when each ingredient is at its very best.

It reminds me of late summer dinners on the porch, still dripping wet from our swimming pool. Of a warm Mediterranean night in Corsica when dinner started at 1opm and ended around 2am. Of a summer in Santa Cruz, cooking in the most gorgeous kitchen I've ever seen for people I loved. Of cooking for one in a stuffy studio apartment over the plaza in Ashland, Oregon with the first bottle of wine I got for free from the winery I worked at. Of a late night dinner eaten out of Tupperware in a caboose in Dunsmuir, while the rain poured and the wind howled outside, and we were on our first road trip together.

There's something about a dish that brings about that kind of nostalgia. It's comforting. And it feels important when you make it.

But be forewarned. Do not even attempt to make this dish when tomatoes are not in season. You will be sorely disappointed.

This is less of a recipe, and more of a set of guidelines. This is all about how it tastes to you. Measuring out tablespoons and teaspoons would just ruin it:

Tomato Basil Pasta

Pasta (I used fresh porcini pasta from Phoenix Pastaficio) bowtie and penne shapes are especially good for this.
good tomatoes, roughly chopped (I used 4 medium heirlooms, green, gold and red)
3-4 cloves of garlic, I mince the garlic and then create a sort of paste with the back of my knife and some kosher salt. You want the garlic to mix well with the juice of the tomatoes, almost like a salsa. If you don't make the garlic paste, mince it very finely
Basil, torn into small pieces, about 3/4 a cup to 1 cup
good extra virgin Olive Oil, a few tablespoons
Fresh Parmesan

Mix the tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil together. Add kosher salt to taste and let sit to sort of macerate for a half hour or so. Do not refrigerate.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted, boiling water, according to package directions. If you're using fresh pasta (which I recommend) this should only take a couple minutes. Drain the pasta and toss with the tomato mixture. Taste, add salt and freshly ground pepper if needed. Top with grated or shaved Parmesan. Serve and enjoy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Russian Roulette - Grilled Padrón Peppers with Olive Oil & Sea Salt

It was naive of me to think I'd have more time to cook now that I'm working from home. Nope. Definitely not the case. The whole work from home thing has so far equaled some very, very long days. I'm quickly learning that I have to schedule things like breakfast, lunch and dinner, or I just don't get around to actually eating a meal. Now, more than ever, things will have to be scheduled, and spontaneity will be taking a back seat, for now.

The most spontaneous thing I've done this week was to buy these Padrón peppers. When 6pm rolled around I shut my computer, rose from my desk and started to heat up my grill pan for a decidedly unique dinner.

I first had these peppers as an appetizer at Pizzaiolo. I couldn't get enough of them. It's like playing Russian Roulette with these, some are hot and some are not. I can't seem to pop them in my mouth fast enough. They're the epitome of a quick dish. Just toss with olive oil and sea salt, grill and serve. Your guests will think you're very fancy.

Grilled Padrón Peppers with Olive Oil & Sea Salt

1 bunch of Padrón Peppers
enough olive oil to coat the peppers
sea salt

Heat an outdoor grill or grill pan on the stove to medium-high. Meanwhile, toss the peppers in a bowl with the olive oil and salt. The peppers will start to char and blacken after about 4 minutes or so. Keep an eye on them to gauge when to turn them with some tongs. Char on both sides. When done, transfer to a plate, add more sea salt if necessary, and serve.

Pimientos De Padron

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Four Little Words Nearly Everyone Hopes to Hear - Crispy Braised Chicken Thighs with Olives, Lemon & Thyme

After 3 days (roughly 30 hours) of intensive training in a Westin hotel just outside of Washington DC with my 20 fellow trainees, we were cut loose at 4:30 on Friday evening. We sat in the hotel conference room, blinking in surprise and exhaustion. We were free? To do what? The last 72 hours had been under strict schedule and direction. It seemed as though we couldn't remember exactly what we did when we weren't absorbing and brainstorming together.

We packed up our new laptops and training manuals and headed up to the hotel lounge like zombies. Waiting for the cars that would whisk us off to the airport. We collapsed into the overstuffed chairs and ordered a round of drinks, unable to stop talking about work. My brain felt several tons over capacity, and when I headed over to the bar for a refill, the bartender took one look at me and said the words you always hope to hear a bartender say: "This one's on me."

God bless him.

It's true, my eyes were bloodshot, with some serious dark circles parking under them. I must have been a seriously pitiful sight. But if it's pity that leads to a free glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I have no problem with that.

There are other stories from the past week and a half, of course, but I choose to start at the end for now. From Washington/Dulles airport I boarded a Virgin American red-eye, and more than four hours of Top Chef later, I landed at SFO. My head hit my pillow at 2am, and the next day I gathered myself together to head to my friend Brigid's wedding in Mill Valley. It was a fairly surreal 24 hours, and a very lovely wedding filled with old friends and co-workers from my first couple years in the Bay Area.

When Sunday rolled around, I reveled in my first truly free day in what seemed like months. Feeling ambitious, I whipped out Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home cookbook and opened it up to this recipe. I'd been eying it for months, but just hadn't gotten around to making it. Not that it's difficult, but sometimes tacking a recipe from a master chef can seem a bit intimidating for a weekday night. Surprisingly, this is a one pot mean that would translate nicely to any given Wednesday.

It felt so good to be back in the kitchen. And it feels great to be embarking on a new job, even if I am too nervous to sleep much. But here's hoping to less hours of the week commuting, and more in the kitchen.

Crispy Braised Chicken Thighs with Olives, Lemon & Fennel
from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home
serves 2-3

2 large fennel bulbs
6 chicken thighs, skin on
kosher salt
canola oil
1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion
1/2 tbsp finely chopped garlic
4 tbsp dry white wine
1/2 cup large green olives
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 dried bay leaf
4 strips of lemon zest, removed with a vegetable peeler
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley leaves for garnish

Cut off the fennel stalks. Trim off the bottom of the bulbs and peel back the layers from the core. You can use the cores for another recipe. Cut the fennel layers into 2 x 1/2 inch batons. You'll need roughly 2 cups of fennel. Reserve any leftover fennel for another recipe.

Preheat the oven to 375 and set a cooling rack out over a baking sheet for later use.

Season the chicken thighs on both sides with salt. Heat a couple tablespoons of canola oil in a large oven-proof saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the thighs, skin side down and cook until brown on that side, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook for about a minute more to sear the other side. Transfer the thighs to a cooling rack and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onions. Cook for about 1 1/2 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring often until the onions are translucent. About 5 minutes. Add the fennel, turn the heat up to medium and cook, stirring often until the fennel is crisp-tender, about 10 minutes.

Add in the wine and simmer for about 2 minutes to cook off the alcohol. Sir in the olives, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, lemon zest, thyme and chicken stock. Increase the heat, bring the liquid to a simmer, and cook until the fennel is tender, about 1 minute.

Taste the stock and season with salt to taste. Return the chicken to the pan, skin-side-up, in a single layer. When the liquid returns to a simmer, transfer the pan to the oven and cook 15-20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Turn on the broiler and put the pan under it for a minute or two to crisp and brown the chicken skin. Remove, transfer to a serving platter, garnish with parsley and serve.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Simple - White Peaches in Muscat Wne

I spent my freshman year of college at a small liberal arts school smack in the middle of Boston. My dorm was at the corner of Boylston and Tremont, right across from the Common and the Boston Gardens. The year before, I was attending my final year of high school at a tiny school for the arts in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and to go from the nearest town being 15 miles away, to being in the heart of a bustling city like Boston was a bit of a shock to my system. My hike to class in Michigan was literally just that, a hike through the woods on campus, past a gorgeous lake with the sounds of students practicing their instruments all around. In Boston, it was a stroll across the Commons, pushing past droves of people to the sounds of construction, sirens, and basic city life.

There weren't many places to escape the constant drone of the city that year. I didn't have a car, but occasionally I would take the T across the river to Cambridge and find a quiet park somewhere. But more likely, I was taking full advantage of the student offer at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Free admission. I was there nearly once a week, taking in the hush of that place. Peaceful, open and bright, with it's towering ceilings and stark white lines. It's where I discovered my favorite photographer, Edward Weston. In particular, it's where I discovered this photo that has haunted me ever since:

I stood in front of this photo for hours, collectively. Marveling at it. So many shapes in one body. I loved coming back to that exhibit. Taking some time out from the noise and activity to walk peacefully throughout the museum and take in all the beauty. Always starting and ending at this particular photograph.

So imagine how ecstatic I was to walk into the Oakland Museum for the first time, and stumble upon the same photograph in the back of the art section of the museum. I gasped out loud. It's famous, to be sure, but for me it's personal. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that it was there, but I was. I couldn't help but grin.That was a difficult year, and seeing the photograph brings me back to being 18 years old and on my own in the big city for the first time. It was so many things at once. Exciting and frighting, full of activity but lonely at the same time. In the end, I learned to embrace being on my own in the big city, and it's something I take pleasure in doing every once in awhile now.

I especially love spending time alone in museums. No one to rush me, no one to wait for. Just me, taking my time to look at whatever I want, for however long I want. It feels positively decadent.

The Oakland Museum is a beautiful place. I wandered around for a few hours, and spent a good deal of time in the current Pixar exhibit, which was spectacular, to say the least, but when I was ready to go, I headed back into the art exhibit, to look at the Weston picture one more time.

What's so beautiful about the piece, I think, is it's simplicity. The duality of curves and straight lines, the exposure of skin and the face concealed, the gradation of color in the simple black and white.

There's something so elegant about beauty extending from simplicity.

That might be the same reason why I like this dessert so much. Simple. Peaches and Muscat. Maybe a little sugar if I feel it needs it. It's less of a recipe than it is a good idea.

White Peaches in Muscat Wine

from the Zuni Cafe cookbook
serves 4-5

1/2 bottle sweet muscat wine (about 1 3/4 cups)
sugar, if needed
4 medium, ripe peaches
red berries for garnish

Bring a few quarts of boiling water to a boil, and in the meantime, prepare a large bowl of ice water for the peaches to sit in after they come out of the hot water. Once the water has come to a simmer, add the peaches in with a slotted spoon, one by one. After about 15 seconds, remove the peaches with the slotted spoon and slide them into the ice water.

Remove the skin from the peaches, it should come off easily at this point.

Add the wine to a large bowl, and add sugar to taste. I added about a teaspoon, since my wine was already quite sweet.

Using a small knife, cut the peaches into 1/2 inch wedges over the wine, and let the fruit drop into the liquid. Once all the peaches have been cut, cover the fruit and wine with plastic wrap or a piece of parchment paper, and let macerate in the refrigerator for up to an hour.

Remove the peaches from the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving and taste. Sprinkle more sugar over the peaches, if needed.

Spoon into wine glasses to serve. It looks beautiful garnished with red berries.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Leading Lady Red - Cucumber Salad

This is a case of good intentions leading to a likely ill-advised shade of red lipstick. Leading Lady Red, it's called.

In the almost two weeks of my in-between employment, I've tried to have a mix of the responsible "get er' done" kind of stuff, and the more enjoyable vacation things. Guess which list I prefer? Compare sectioning off an area of my studio to write off on taxes for working at home, to a hike with a good friend at Muir Beach. Or closet cleaning, to a gorgeous concert by the musician Nathaniel Rateliff at Cafe du Nord. File organizing, in order to justify drinks with friends at Smugglers Cove in San Francisco.

Yesterday the plan was to exchange book donations, oil change and car wash for an afternoon meandering through the SF MOMA. I hopped off BART and ran over to the museum, only to find myself sadly locked out. I then tried the Contemporary Jewish Museum, same story there. San Francisco museums are all closed on Wednesday afternoons, for some strange reason. My afternoon of culture was not to be.

Hence the red lipstick.

This is what in-between employment me does when her plans are thwarted. She makes an odd impulse purchase. I am now bound and determined to wear the stuff...despite the images of Bozo the Clown it conjures. Not to mention the fact that I'm terrified to pair it with any green article of clothing, lest I end up looking like some kind of deranged Christmas tree...

So today, Thursday, it's deep cleaning time for the kitchen in exchange for the Pixar exhibit at the Oakland Museum. I hear good things. I'm actually pleased with the progress that's gone on in my little studio. I think we're both ready to greet these new experiences.

You'd think I'd be doing a bit more cooking these days, what with a bit of free time on my hands, but mostly, it's just been quick and easy old favorites. This cucumber salad is something my oldest sister makes fairly often. I'm not sure if I have her recipe exact here, but it's at least inspired by her, and it's totally refreshing and delicious. Not to mention easy...

Cucumber Salad

1 English Cucumber (about 1 lb)
1/2 small red onion
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp sesame oil (I stand corrected by my sister, I had written canola oil originally, mistake!)
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp parsley or dill, chopped

Cut the cucumber and onion into paper thin slices, and layer on top of each other on a serving dish.

In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, oil, salt and sugar with a fork. Whisk together, and pour over the cucumbers. Garnish with dill or parsley. Serve.